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The Brain and the Public: Q&A with Susan G. Amara, President, the Society for Neuroscience

Dr. Susan AmaraDr. Susan G. Amara, President of the Society for Neuroscience (Courtesy: SfN).

IN 2012 THE SOCIETY FOR NEUROSCIENCE (SfN) WILL LAUNCH BRAINFACTS.ORG, an authoritative, public-friendly venue to communicate with the public, educators, and policymakers about revolutionary advances in understanding the brain and mind.

As a public information initiative of the Kavli Foundation, the Gatsby Charitable Foundation and SfN, BrainFacts.org will initially build upon SfN’s extensive educational resources and those of founding partners. It will also provide a platform for multimedia resources of initial content partners, and provide a home for two-way conversations with the public by leveraging social media. Over time, SfN expects the site will also draw from the wealth of information available from the global neuroscience community, and expand to facilitate Webinars and Web chats with the public.

Recently, Susan G. Amara, President, Society for Neuroscience, responded in-depth to questions about the anticipated site, as well as how SfN’s own efforts at public outreach have evolved since the Society’s inception.

THE KAVLI FOUNDATION: Dr. Amara, to begin, can you discuss how the Society’s interest in outreach and public education has evolved over the years?

SUSAN AMARA: Public information has been part of the mission of the Society since it was established in 1969. Our founders knew then that a scientifically literate and engaged public was essential to progress in neuroscience, and part of sharing with the world the enduring human quest for knowledge; thus, it was included in our original mission statement. Since then, communicating with the public has only become more important in a world with many exciting discoveries to share. It’s also become more challenging, given the vast array of information that competes for public attention. As a result, the Society has sought to identify ways it can expand access to authoritative – and interesting – information that engages and excites the public about brain research.

"Efforts to advance 'neuroscience literacy' can have an impact on society in diverse ways, such as increasing the likelihood that “good science” will be used to drive public policy, or help health care consumers make more informed choices, or perhaps enable young students to appreciate the value of of science and technology in everyday life."

TKF: One example is your successful public education book, Brain Facts.

AMARA: Yes. Each month, existing SfN public outreach materials currently receive about 40,000 online views, and Brain Facts itself has been distributed directly to well over 100,000 people over the years. The book has global reach, with translations into many other languages over the years, from Croatian to Japanese and most recently German. A podcast version debuted in 2009. But a signature part of SfN’s approach to public education has been innovation. In 2003, SfN’s first strategic plan incorporated a strong commitment to innovative public education efforts. At the time, Huda Akil, then SfN president, already envisioned a robust online public outreach effort – she even encouraged the Society to consider the idea of taking all of SfN’s vital public information and augmenting it with content from across the field, to create a Web-based “authoritative” source for public information. That’s why we are thrilled that the Kavli Foundation and the Gatsby Charitable Foundation are joining us to make this a reality through BrainFacts.org!

TKF: What’s the general state of “neuroscience literacy” and why is this important?

Left to right: Dr. Susan Amara, U.S. Rep. Ed Markey (D-MA),and SfN past-president Anne Young. Amara praised Markey as a long-time champion for NIH funding and Alzheimer’s research. (Courtesy: SfN)Left to right: Dr. Susan Amara, U.S. Rep. Ed Markey (D-MA),and SfN past-president Anne Young. Amara praised Markey as a long-time champion for NIH funding and Alzheimer’s research. (Courtesy: SfN)

AMARA: Although I believe that everyone has an innate curiosity about the brain—how we think, move and behave—the field is still striving to effectively convey recent advances in our understanding of brain function to the general public. Efforts to advance “neuroscience literacy” can have an impact on society in diverse ways, such as increasing the likelihood that “good science” will be used to drive public policy, or help health care consumers make more informed choices, or perhaps enable young students to appreciate the value of of science and technology in everyday life.

An informed public ultimately benefits scientific enterprise as well. National and global public investment priorities are shaped by what the public understands and values. It’s one reason why BrainFacts.org is critically important as a broad resource for neuroscience knowledge. First, it can help to arm our global policymakers with better information about the importance and impact of scientific discovery; second, it will help to inform our fellow citizens about the role and value of science as a source of discovery, economic innovation, and better health. BrainFacts.org can become an invaluable public resource for conveying comprehensive, reliable information about how the brain functions during health and disease, and for helping policymakers understand the connection between basic science funding and outcomes down the road.

TKF: How does BrainFacts.org fit in the Society’s strategic plan for outreach, awareness and education?

AMARA: BrainFacts.org is a natural evolution of SfN’s longstanding commitment to and leadership in public outreach. SfN has an extensive library of resources and outreach strategies that will fold into BrainFacts.org. Also we already strive at some level to filter, catalog, and share teaching resources generated by the wider field, and this will make a way to access many excellent and scientifically accurate resources about the brain that aren’t necessary created by SfN. And we have exceptional levels of engagement from members who participate in the development and review of public outreach material and take part in events, and their engagement in BrainFacts.org will be vital. Finally, we have a wide range of audiences who regularly seek and receive information through SfN, and we expect they will welcome BrainFacts.org.

TKF: One of the goals of BrainFacts.org is to be an information resource for Capitol Hill. How well is neuroscience understood by legislators – particularly those involved in science policy?

Brainfacts.orgBrain Facts, an educational primer on the brain and nervous system, published by SfN. The publication (Courtesy: SfN).

AMARA: Over the years, I have spent time in Washington and also locally advocating for neuroscience funding. While there are notable exceptions, I am sometimes disheartened by, but not resigned to, the limited appreciation of science by some policymakers. On the other hand, one doesn’t have to understand the mechanics of protein folding to understand the importance of research, and many of our strongest governmental leaders have different, valuable expertise in understanding how to get things done in a political world. Thus, we are deeply grateful for the many research champions on both sides of the aisle who “get it” and have supported growth in research funding over the years. They are too numerous to mention, but some of our great advocates have included my former senator, Arlen Specter, and I am delighted that another Pennsylvania senator, Bob Casey, has begin to expand his leadership role in support of research. Others like Senators Tom Harkin and Barbara Mikulski, and House members such as Patrick Kennedy, John Porter, and Rosa DeLauro, have been longstanding, committed supporters as well. Also, I am grateful that my local Congressional delegation in Pittsburgh has taken the time to learn more and appreciate the value of investments in biomedical research and higher education.

TKF: More broadly, this project aims to provide comprehensive information about the brain and brain research to the general public. What do you feel needs to be better communicated to the public?

AMARA: I really hope BrainFacts.org will play a vital role in helping to share the wonder and the excitement of scientific discovery, especially basic science, in addition to communicating new discoveries and the value of science investment for health and the global economy. I know that The Kavli Foundation and The Gatsby Charitable Foundation share our commitment to the importance of basic science, so they are natural partners in this exciting adventure. We need to ensure that the public and policymakers understand the importance of a rich pipeline filled with basic scientific knowledge upon which advances are built. SfN has a spectacular series of publications highlighting the impact of basic science on human health and well-being. Called Research & Discoveries, the series of stories tells not only the outcomes of basic research, but also importance of the scientific pursuit to understand “why.”

I hope BrainFacts.org can help the field highlight more of this kind of content, integrating an understanding of basic science with its implications for human health and behavior. It helps convey the excitement and wonder if science—an important goal in and of itself—and it also helps the public connect basic research with the translational and clinical efforts underway to address the brain diseases that exact enormous toll on families and societies. It also will help the public understand what we are learning about how a healthy brain functions, and how biology influences our behavior in fascinating ways.

"It is an exciting and critical time for the neuroscience community. We are on the cusp of revolutionary advances in science and I look forward to seeing the next 10 years of discovery."

TKF: In SfN’s strategic plan, one issue raised is the need to increase the number of neuroscientists that are skilled at communicating to the public and serving as advocates for their field. Why should this be important to neuroscientists?

AMARA: In many ways, public visibility for neuroscience has never been greater – the brain is a hot topic in the headlines and online. The question is whether it is scientifically accurate information. That is a great challenge for the field, and one that I hope everyone will take up. In today’s communications environment, there are countless ways to “communicate to the public.” You don’t have to be Eric Kandel or Cori Bargmann, although our field is very grateful to have Eric and Cori on the airwaves and online! Many members already spend an enormous amount of time volunteering in schools, teaching teachers, writing op-eds, or serving on advisory boards for scientific and health publications. These are all ways to serve. Today, it is also possible to do public outreach by commenting on a blog post, perhaps to correct inaccurate science. Or contributing to Wikipedia’s content, participating in SfN’s current Brain Awareness Week Video Contest, or participating in the U.S. Science and Engineering Festival, which The Kavli Foundation also supported. I hope every scientist will find a channel to influence and educate, and stay committed to making a difference through it.

TKF: The strategic plan also focuses on education, stressing the importance of increasing the depth and number of neuroscientist/teacher partnerships, emphasizing neuroscience in K-12 school curricula, broadly enhancing the stature and visibility of neuroscience/science education. Could you elaborate on these goals?

AMARA: Research shows that many U.S. science teachers today generally do not have the skill set or knowledge base needed to teach the rapidly evolving topics in science, let alone neuroscience. Given the pressures on their time and the diversity of topics they must cover, I am not surprised. Across the scientific community, there is much we can do to help encourage training and education for educators; at the same time, SfN can help make excellent neuroscience educational resources more accessible and relevant. We can also encourage SfN members to visit schools and “partner” with teachers to take part in educational opportunities. The Neuroscience-Teacher Partnership and all the terrific Brain Awareness efforts are ways SfN tries to help make those connections. New technology platforms like BrainFacts.org, and the social media discussions that evolve there over time, may offer new ways of forging connections. That is a good example of a further evolution that may emerge from BrainFacts.org—as the site matures, I’m excited to see how it will spark new and unexpected ways of expanding our public outreach mission.

TKF: When it comes to being a public resource on neuroscience, where would you like the Society positioned in ten years and where does BrainFacts.org fit in that vision?

AMARA: This is a time of digital transformation, and it is exciting. As we launch this effort, SfN remains rooted in its enduring core values and goals of providing accurate information to our public audiences, and leveraging the knowledge and enthusiasm of the neuroscience community; at the same time, the future is digital and social technology platforms. We don’t know what the communications landscape will be 10 years from now— imagine 10 years ago fathoming what “Facebook likes” could be or that you might be following SfN on something called Twitter! But we can be confident that it will rely on new and more advanced communications technologies, and BrainFacts.org will be integral to ensuring there is really high-quality public information available from a reliable and authoritative nonprofit organization. I hope and expect the site will emerge as a highly reputable, widely viewed hub of information, and that it will be filled with a new generation of great science.

It is an exciting and critical time for the neuroscience community. We are on the cusp of revolutionary advances in science and I look forward to seeing the next 10 years of discovery. With BrainFacts.org, we now are on the cusp of major advances in how we communicate that emerging science, and serve the field in the process.